1902 Encyclopedia > General Epistle of James

General Epistle of James




THE GENERAL EPISTLE OF JAMES. Of the author of this epistle enough has been said in the previous article (3) ; it only remains to add in connexion with the intro-ductory words thereof that probably the same reason actuated both St James and St Jude to leave out any mention that they were "brethren of the Lord." We need not enter into the question of what relationship is intended by those words, though, from the mention of Joseph on each occasion where the "brethren" are spoken of, it is probable that they were really his children by a former marriage. Thus Jesus would be younger than those who are called "his brethren," and their behaviour in rejecting his teaching for so long a time may have been partly a result of their growing up with him and regarding him as a younger member of the same family, and from familiarity becoming less willing than strangers would be to acknowledge anything which looked like an assertion of superiority. But, whatever the reason for their former un-belief, it is easy to see that, when they had at length come to own Jesus as their Lord, humility would check the mention of the relationship in which they might claim to stand to Jesus, as would also a desire not to appear to place themselves in a position of close connexion with Christ, to which none others could lay claim.

The epistle is addressed " to the twelve tribes which are of the dispersion." The word " dispersion" (Stao-jropa) was employed in the New Testament times to signify the Jewish population in every part of the then known world. Jews were to be found in Persia, Egypt, Asia Minor, and indeed in all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. When the writer addresses them as " the twelve tribes " he gives us the key to the character of his epistle. It was written to Christians who had been converts from Judaism, but to whom their ancient faith was still of the very highest importance, indeed, of somewhat more import-ance than it ought to have been. We can see therefore why the language of this epistle partakes so largely of the character of the preaching of John the Baptist (comp. Jas. i. 22, 27 with Matt. iii. 8; Jas. ii. 15, 16 with Luke iii. 11; Jas. ii. 19, 20 with Matt. iii. 9 ; and Jas. v. 1-6 with Matt, iii. 10-12) and of that of our Lord's earliest teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (of. especially Jas. i. 2, 4, 5, 9, 20 ; ii. 13, 14; iii. 17-18; iv. 4, 10, 11; v. 2, 10, 12, 15), and why it is so largely illustrated by the language of books like Ecclesiasticus and the Book of Wisdom, which were specially esteemed by the Jews of Alexandria and other Hellenistic centres of Judaism (see Jas. i. 1, 5, 8, 11, 12, 17, 19, 20, 23, 25 ; ii. 21 ; iii. 5, 6; iv. 14). We should judge from this that the bishop of Jerusalem, in the earlier days of the Christian church, availed himself of his central position to circulate among the scattered Judaeo-Christian populations, of whom representatives would constantly be within his reach, such a letter as was suited to stimulate the new converts to more truly Christian life, and to check errors into which, from their attachment to the older faith, they were prone to fall. The epistle contains many exhor-tations to accept a higher standard for the conduct of life, though a considerable section (i. 22—ii. 26) applies more specifically to the dangers that beset Jewish converts of trusting to a faith which produced no results in the form of Christian love.

But it was not only for those who were scattered into distant parts of the world that the epistle was written. It bears marks of its relation to a time of special trial and hardship, and has much to say of how trials and sufferings are to be borne. "Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations" is the opening language; and the writer returns to the same theme at the close of his letter: " Be ye also patient," " Stablishyour hearts," " Behold, we count them happy which endure." Such words agree best with the dis-persion of the first Christian brotherhood after the death of Stephen, and with that persecution by Herod Agrippa I. in which James the brother of John was put to death. It is an additional indication that the epistle was written about those times that in it there is no word of that contention which soon agitated the whole Christian church about the circumcision of the Gentiles, and about which James pronounced the sentence of the council of Jeru-salem in 51 A.D. The persecution which ensued on the martyrdom of Stephen (33 A.D.) is too early a date after the ascension for us to think it probable that Christianity could have had enough representatives among the dispersion to make such an epistle as the present necessary. It seems better therefore to refer it to that larger persecution in which the one James suffered death, and after which the other James comes into special prominence in Christian church history. This would lead to the conclusion that the epistle, primarily addressed to the Jewish Christians throughout Palestine, but intended also for others who lived beyond the limits of the Holy Land, was written at Jerusalem, from which James the Just seems never to have departed, and that it should be dated some time after 44 A.D , the date of Herod's persecution, and antecedent pro-bably by several years (for the agitation which led to the council must have existed for some time) to the council at Jerusalem (51 A.D.).

The epistle contains nothing to indicate where it was written, but at the same time there is nothing in the imagery and illustrations employed by the writer which would be out of character with one writing in Palestine. It is therefore probable that, since tradition represents James as constantly resident in Jerusalem, the epistle was written there. He uses the Jewish name " synagogue " (ii. 2) for the place of assembly for worship, which would perhaps be longer preserved among the Christians in Jeru-salem than elsewhere; but on the other hand he speaks (v. 14) of the "elders of the church" (IKKXTJO-IO) just as we find St Luke doing in the Acts of the Apostles. He mentions the " burning wind " («aij'ow) spoken of in the Gospels (Matt. xx. 12; Luke xii. 55), and his language (iii. 4) about ships and the storms by which they are driven is such as would be natural in one who knew by experience of the tempests that sometimes sweep suddenly over the Sea of Galilee, with which this James must have been familiar as well as the son of Zebedee.

The epistle appears to have been written with a view, in the first place, to comfort some who were undergoing severe trials. This is clear from the opening sentence, " Count it all joy when ye fall into divers trials." But the words also seem to show that there was a spirit pre-vailing among those for whom the letter was first intended which did not tend to that perfect patience under sufferings that should characterize the faithful Christian. And so the writer passes on to notice a want of perfect trust in God, and a too great regard for temporal things, concern-ing which they are exhorted to foster such a mind as shall make changes in worldly affairs, when they are for the worse, yet still no cause for sorrow. For the only perfect gifts are of God's own sending, and in His gifts as in Him-self there is no change. The epistle next dwells on that which was the great danger with Jewish converts, the pro-fession of a belief in God and Christ without a correspond-ing Christian life ; they are further exhorted to avoid sins of the tongue and sins of presumption, while those to whom wealth had become the chief object in life are severely condemned. But before the close the writer turns once more to his first theme, the commendation of patience under sufferings, which he enforces by the examples of the prophets and of Job. Then with certain cautions about the use of oaths, some precepts for conduct under sorrow, joy, sickness, or the consciousness of sin, the epistle is brought to a close, and has not the apostolic benediction, a feature which also marks the letter as one of the earliest of the Christian writings. The time of trial alluded to suits well with the date which has been suggested, when Herod's persecutions made it necessary for the Christians in Jerusalem to meet in secluded rooms, and to exercise the utmost precaution about all whom they admitted to their meetings. We know too, from the statements of Josephus, that it was from the wealthy Sadducees that the Christians in Jerusalem experienced most persecution, and that they especially were adverse to Christianity because of the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus. The followers of Jesus were, as we know, at this time just beginning to be called Christians, and this name soon became (if it was not at first given as) a name of reproach. These circum-stances seem to be specially noticed in this epistle (ii. 6, 7). To the necessities of those days then the letter appears to be first directed, though it contains precepts eminently profitable for those who, having held firm to the belief in the unity of God (ii. 19), were disposed, even after the acceptance of the teaching of the gospel, to think that an intellectual assent to what was set forth was enough, with-out any effort to build up on the groundwork of faith the superstructure of Christ-like virtues.





In the time of Eusebius (325 A.D.) the epistle of St James was reckoned among the books not fully accepted by the church. He says (H. E., iii. 25) "among the con-troverted books, which are yet well known and recognized by most is the epistle circulated under the name of James." But among the apostolic fathers we have quotations from it in the writings of Clement of Borne (1 Ep. ad Cor., cc. 10, 12) and perhaps of Hermas (Pastor, mand. xii. 5). Further, in the Syriac version of Melito's apology there are some passages which bear a striking resemblance to the words of St James, and may have been quotations (see Cureton's Spicil. Syr., pp. 42, 48); and the Peshito Syriac version contains the epistle. Origen in his com-mentary on John (Works, xix. 6) speaks of the epistle as in " circulation under the name of James," and he quotes from it in another place (Works, xii. 129) as that of James, without any comment. Dionysius of Alexandria, who was at the head of the catechetical school there (245), quotes from the epistle. These are all the notices of the epistle on which dependence can be placed before the council of Laodicea (363), when it was included among the canonical books. But there seems no doubt that the words " well known and recognized by most," used by Eusebius indicate that the epistle was by him regarded as a part of Scripture, for in other portions of his works he alludes to it as if he so esteemed it, and evidence of its recognition in the Syrian Church speaks strongly in favour of its authenticity. For that church was most likely to have the best knowledge concerning the origin and early circulation of the epistle. We can account for the slight extent to which it was known from the fact that it was addressed, by a bishop who never moved from his home, to one section only of the Christian church, and was not likely to gain such wide acceptance at first as the epistles of St Paul, whose missionary labours made his name and his writings well known in different countries. Moreover, the tone of the epistle is practical and not doctrinal, and for this reason also it would be less likely to be noticed in the writings of the Christian fathers. Indeed, this feature of the epistle led Luther, who thought there was in it some contradiction to St Paul's teaching on the doctrine of justi-fication by faith, to call it eine rechte stroherne Epistel (ed. of German N. T., 1522), " a veritable epistle of straw." But language like this is due to the distorted way in which the great Reformer looked at the subject. His day called for prominence to be given to the Pauline view of justification. St James's day had different needs. The character of those for whom this epistle was intended and their special dangers are sufficient to account for the way in which St James emphasizes what St Paul would as stoutly have maintained in a like case, that " faith without works is dead."

The view given above, which dates the epistle before the rise of the Pauline controversy, has been ably maintained by many recent theologians, especially in Germany, in opposition to the Tubingen school. See Schneckenburger's Annotatio, 1832 ; Huther's Gom-mentar, 1858, 3d ed. 1870 ; Neander, Pflanzung, 4th ed. 1847, p. 564 seq.; Ritschl, Altkath. Kirche, 2d ed. 1857, p. 109 seq., and Reclitf. und Versohn., 1874, ii. 277 seq. ; "Weiss, Bib. Theol. des N. t., lsted. 1868, 2d ed. 1873 ; Beyschlag in Stud. undKrit., 1874, i.; Hofmann, Heilige Schrift, vii. 3, 1876. Other scholars, while defending the genuineness of the epistle, recognize in it dis-tinct allusions to the Pauline theology, and so prefer a later date. So, for example, Ewald (Geschichte, vi. 591 seq.; Sendseh. an d. Heb. u. Jakobos Bundsch., 1870), who takes the epistle as directed against mistaken inferences from Paul's teaching. The Tubingen school, on the other hand, regards theepistle as directly anti-Pauline, and at the same time denies that it is genuine. So Baur, Paulus, 2d ed. 1867, Anh. 2; Schwegler, Nachap. Zeital., 1846, i. 413 seq.; Hilgenfeld, Einl., 1875, and in Z. f. w. T., 1877, p. 87 seq.; Blom, De Brief van Jacobus, Dort, 1869, and in Theol. Tijdsch., 1872, p. 241 seq. See also Holtzmann in Schenkel's Bibellex., s.v. " Jakobosbrief." The argument turns mainly on the interpretation of the doctrine of faith and works in chap. ii. 24, which formally at least is in direct opposition to Rom iii. 28. In other words, Luther's difficulty is still the chief turning-point of the argument. Now it is certain that the antithesis between Paul and James is not really so sharp as it appears in the verses just cited, because the two do not attach the same meaning to the word '' faith." In fact, James's faith without works is not Paul's justifying faith, but the useless faith without love spoken of in 1 Cor. xiii. We have to deal with two types of doctrine using the same terms in different senses, so that it is not inconceivable that the two may really be capable of such reconciliation in the practical Christian life as to make their divergences unimportant. But, say Baur and his school, there is no proof and great internal improbability that any type of doctrine existed before Paul, maintaining justification by faith alone, pre-cisely in Pauline terms, and using the very illustrations of Abraham and Rahab which occur in the Pauline theology and the kindred epistle to the Hebrews. Starting with this difficulty, and indicating in detail the proofs of the author's familiarity with the peculiar ter-minology of the great Pauline epistles, the Tubingen school urge also that James ii. 5, i. 12 presuppose acquaintance with Rev. ii. 9, 10, and even that the allusion to Rahab (ii. 25) proves the author to have read Heb. xi. 31. Further, it is contended that the supposed marks of an early date, in the condition of the churches addressed, are capable of another interpretation, and that the persecution alluded to may be best understood of the time of Domitian. Finally, the language of the epistle is regarded as a proof that the date is not very early, and the author different from the thoroughly Hebrew figure of James as described by Hegesippus. The weight of these arguments is plainly very unequal, and the ultimate solution of the controversy must mainly be in the region of Biblical theology, where one side has often been tempted to minimize the difference between James and Paul, while the other has not done justice to the positive value of the teaching of our epistle, often speaking of it as a mere ineffective polemic against Paul by one who did not understand him. Compare further Alford, Gk. Test. ; Wordsworth, Gk. Test. ; Bishop Lightfoot's Essay on the Brethren of the Lord ; Davidson's Introduction to the N. Test, ; Plumptre, St James; Semler, Paraphrasis Ep. Jacobi, 1781 ; Monod, Introduction a I'ep. de S. Jacques, 1846; Wiesinger, " Der Brief des Jakobus," in Olshausen's Bibelwerk, 1854 ; Boon, Be Jacobi epistolw cum Siracidse libro convenientia, 1860 ; Reuss, L'Evitre de Jacques, 1878. (J. R. L.)







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